I arrived in Cardiff on Friday to give a talk with artist Simon Pope on our art / science collaboration Walking Here and There to find the exhibition made the front page of the South Wales Echo with the headline “It’s an empty room… So why on earth do they think it is art?”.
The exhibition, entitled ‘Gallery Space Recall‘, is indeed an empty gallery, with nothing but the words ‘You are invited to recall from memory a walk through a gallery space’ written on the wall.
The only other component is that we’ve trained the gallery assistants to use a few psychological techniques to encourage people to expand on the impact and significance of their memories while they take visitors around the gallery. Vistors are encouraged to recall a previous gallery space they’ve visited, as if their remembered exhibition were in the space of Chapter Arts Centre.
With all credit to Simon, while the work is part of Walking Here and There, the wonderful idea for this part was all his.
The exhibition aims to highlight the role of memory and location in how we understand and appreciate art, and relate to our environment.
Artists aim to convey meaning with their work, communicating concepts and invoking ideas in new and challenging ways. However, psychology and neuroscience has known for over a century that meaning is something which is constructed and reconstructed by the mind and brain (Bartlett’s ‘War of the Ghosts‘ experiment is a famous example).
The perception of everything from the simple visual world to complexity of visual art is directly dependent on our past experience. This is known as ‘top-down’ processing [pdf], and is obvious in the brain where the visual system is massively connected to memory areas.
Also, the personal significance of art depends on your memories. A piece might invoke strong emotions because it connects with past experiences, in turn making it more memorable, as emotionally arousing events are recalled better than others.
So where does the meaning in art actually lie? In the object itself, or in your interpretation of it?
Gallery Space Recall removes the object and relies entirely on your memory. So where does the art exist here? In the visitor’s mind? In a past gallery recalled by the visitor? In the mind of the gallery assistant who is listening to the visitor reminisce? In Simon’s idea? Or, perhaps, all of them?
This is exactly where Simon’s work and my work overlap, as we’re both interested in how memory and its distortions affect our understanding of the world.
It’s interesting that none of the artists interviewed for the outraged South Wales Echo article actually objected to the idea (in fact, they seemed to quite like it), but just to the fact that an empty gallery got funded.
I think we can confidently say that this is the cheapest exhibition that the gallery has ever put on, actually leaving more money for other artists. Consequently, it’s probably the cheapest publicity they’ve ever had too.
Further stages of the collaboration look at how the breakdown of memory, in delusions and psychosis, highlight the importance of remembering in our perception of reality.
The slides from the talk are online [powerpoint format] if you want more information, or keep tabs on the Walking Here and There website to see how the project progresses.
We’ll also be discussing the project at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, this Wednesday at 4pm (details here) and the exhibition is on until November 5th.
Link to Walking Here and There website.
Link to description of Gallery Space Recall.
Link to photos of opening.
Link to ‘Art? Or just an empty room?’ from the South Wales Echo.
ppt file of powerpoint slides from gallery talk.